Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Joe Tinker celebrated two anniversaries on July 27—that of his birthday in 1880 and his death in 1948—and 300 or so people from across the state of Kansas, California and Maryland descended on the tiny town of Muscotah to celebrate. That the celebration happened at all was an improbable, unimaginable, brash, delusionally optimistic dream of resident Jeff Hanson, and all the more cinematic for its opening sequence. Players emerged from the tree line in ones and threes and jogged toward home plate across a broad expanse of grass, their uniforms outdated by a hundred years but no less real for it, nor the cries and huzzahs from enthusiastic baseball fans, family members, news media, photographers, curiosity seekers, Kansas Explorers, gaggles of kids and two billy goats that may or may not have lifted a 68-year-old curse from the Chicago Cubs.
It was impossible not to find parallels to the movie “Field of Dreams” when “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other baseball greats stepped from a cornfield as a sort of reward for the faithful. And if outwardly the entrance seemed a little too clichéd, too contrived, none could or would fault it. Up and down the line of spectators came an appreciative, almost reverential murmuring of “build it and they will come.”
Build it Muscotah did: Joe Tinker Field, and the world’s largest baseball (or started anyway, soon to be home of the Joe Tinker Museum), a miniature baseball diamond beside the former water tank now gleaming white with rebar stitching, and on Tinker’s birthday—Muscotah’s most famous son—the town’s population swelled like a tick stuck to a summertime dog, its narrow gravel streets choked with every make of car and truck including an old Jeep crowned with headless dinosaurs and a decorative jackalope, women in Victorian dresses and parasols, flag-bedecked ladies hawking peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks, and the Hodgeman Nine versus the Cowtown Vintage Base Ball Club playing by 1860s rules with tools of the trade notably different than those of today.
But before the first pitch could be thrown there was the matter of the curse. Allegedly in 1945 the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, one Billy Sianis, was ejected from Wrigley Field during a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers due to the offensive odor of his pet goat. He is said to declare that “Them Cubs they ain’t gonna win no more.” At the time it probably sounded like sour grapes but it turned out to be nothing less than prophetic. The Chicago Cubs never again won a National League pennant nor have they won a World Series.
Sam Sianis, Billy’s nephew-in-law, reportedly stated that the curse could be lifted only by a public show of affection toward goats by Cubs’ players. Accordingly, a small goat was led onto the field where it was scratched, schmoozed, petted and warmly complimented by each team member representing—but not affiliated with—the Chicago Cubs. Whether it worked or not remains to be seen.
And then came the opening pitch by Tinker’s great-grandson, Chris Tinker, and the scarlet-emblazoned Cowtown players took to the field.
If not for the encircling cars and pickups (and video cameras and swarms of cameras) it could have been any balmy summer afternoon in the late 1800s, with Muscotah assured of its destiny and the town’s denizens turned out for America’s favorite pastime. Only it didn’t turn out that way, as numerous small towns hitching their futures to the twin rails of the Central Branch found out. The railroad disappeared, businesses failed, people drifted away, and the town slowly shrunk in on itself as if intent on reverting to the unbroken prairie from whence its name derived.
But towns have a way of catching a second breath, usually at the instigation of one or two residents who refuse to sit idly by while everything around them turns to dust. Muscotah had Hanson, he had a three-legged dog, and the dog had neighbors who bought into his master’s vision of creating a tourist destination to attract historians, baseball fans and anyone else who appreciated rural culture. Thanks to additional assistance from the Kansas Sampler Foundation and a host of volunteers who helped paint, pour concrete, and raise thousands of dollars in donations, Hanson’s dream became real.
And on Tinker’s birthday the outside world turned its attention to Muscotah. Even the Chicago Cubs, possibly crossing their collective fingers about the possibility of the curse’s demise, Tweeted their encouragement.
It was never about baseball, Hanson said. It was about community—or, as I like to think, people helping people find ways to keep their towns viable. Having a historic son or daughter certainly helps garner attention, but it’s not necessary. Haddam (pop. 153) just added new playground equipment to their small town park; Florence (pop. 605) hosts special dinners in the Harvey House Museum served by waitresses dressed as Harvey Girls, and restoration continues on their opera house; Marion (pop. 1,897) restored its Santa Fe Depot to house the library and began a decorative campaign involving rhinoceros statuary. These towns, and so many others, refuse to let go. They’re resolute, tenacious, committed and unyielding. They’re blueprints for a rural renaissance. They’re our greatest hope.
Hats off to Muscotah. Play ball!